Everyone will be entitled to a “free teeth MOT” in England under a Labour government, the party says.
Labour is proposing to scrap band one dentistry charges, which cover a check up, a scale and polish, and any X-rays that may be needed.
It believes patients are put off going because of the fee – a check up costs £22.70 – with many ending up in A&E.
Dental leaders welcomed the move, but said there was a shortage of dentists that needed addressing too.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said charges were a real barrier to access services for some.
“With 135,000 patients presenting at A&E with dental problems every year, it’s time we put prevention at the heart of our approach to health.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn added: “This is the first step towards making all dentistry services free of charge.”
Labour said the policy would cost £450m a year.
Health is devolved so the policy only covers England. Wales and Northern Ireland both charge for check ups, but Scotland does not.
How do the charges work?
There are three fee bands for treatment. They are:
- Band one (£22,70) – check up, scale and polish and any X-rays
- Band two (£62.10) – all the treatments in band one plus fillings, extractions and root canal treatment
- Band three (£269.30) – all treatments in band one and two plus crowns, dentures and bridges
People on low incomes, pregnant women and under 18s or under 19 and in full-time education are exempt from charges.
Nearly half of treatments delivered each year are provided free.
However, the exemption system has been criticised for being overly complex and has been blamed for people getting fined for wrongly claiming free dental care.
How many people are going without dental care?
Official NHS figures show about half of adults have not used an NHS dentist in the past two years and about four in 10 children for the past year.
But that does not mean that they are all going without care.
Some patients may feel they do not need to go, while large numbers pay to see dentists privately.
The figures also do not cover those who get care from specialist community teams, such as those with mental health problems, learning disabilities and some people in care homes.
No data is published on the actual number of people going without care when they need it.
Labour has pointed to figures suggesting one in five delays going because they cannot afford to see dentists, but that is from research a decade ago.
Will this policy solve the problem?
In theory, free checks should make a difference. The British Dental Association points to data from Scotland, which has had free check ups since 2006, that shows higher rates of NHS dentistry use.
BDA chair Mick Armstrong said the system of exemptions was complex so simplifying the system should encourage more people to come forward for check ups – although they still face the prospect of charges if they need any work done.
But he also said workforce problems needed to be addressed if access was going to improve significantly.
Research by the BDA has suggested three quarters of NHS dental surgeries have vacancies they struggle to fill.
“Any plans to boost access must go hand-in-hand with support for a service facing serious recruitment problems.
“NHS dentistry cannot be delivered without NHS dentists.”